Study shows how children benefit from intellectually disabled siblings

Researchers using artwork analysis find that a disabled child has a positive effect on family, correlating with higher scores on empathy and closeness, less conflict and rivalry

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A special needs child participates in a program run by Israel's Shalva organization. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: A special needs child participates in a program run by Israel's Shalva organization. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Siblings of intellectually disabled children are more empathetic, better at teaching and enjoy better relationships with their siblings, according to a new Israeli study.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa queried mothers and children about their sibling relationships using artwork and questionnaires. They studied “typically developed” children’s relationships with their disabled and non-disabled siblings.

“Having a child with a disability in a family places unique demands on all family members, including typically developing siblings,” Tel Aviv University professor Anat Zaidman-Zait said in a statement. “Although challenges exist, they are often accompanied by both short- and long-term positive contributions.”

“We found that children with siblings with intellectual disabilities scored higher on empathy, teaching and closeness and scored lower on conflict and rivalry than those with typically developing siblings,” Zaidman-Zait said.

The paper, titled “The quality of the relationship between typically developing children and their siblings with and without intellectual disability: Insights from children’s drawings,” was published this month in the peer-reviewed medical journal Research in Developmental Disabilities.

Previous research on the topic has been inconsistent, the authors said. Some of the research assumed that children with disabilities are a risk to their siblings, and tended to find a small risk of adjustment problems in the typically developed siblings.

Other research assumed a positive outcome, and found that children whose siblings are disabled assume greater familiar responsibility, without any detriments.

The authors of the new study believe the research is the first of its kind, combining nonverbal reports, such as artwork, from children, with verbal reports from parents and children to examine this kind of sibling relationship.

Other studies often focus on reports from parents, who tend to see sibling relationships as less positive than children do themselves, the authors said.

The researchers evaluated 61 children aged 8-13, around half of whom had typically developed siblings, and half with intellectually disabled siblings. At this stage in “middle childhood,” children have more contact with their disabled siblings and a more mature understanding of their disabilities, the authors said.

Among the children in the study with disabled siblings, half were girls and 60.7 percent of the disabled siblings were boys with an average age of 11.4 years.

The authors declined to specify which intellectual disabilities affected the children.

A control group with similar characteristics, but no disabled children in the family, went through the same research process. The only significant difference between the two groups was that mothers of children with disabilities had less college education on average, which was controlled for in the analysis.

The researchers asked the children to draw themselves alongside their siblings with colored pencils, then had licensed art therapists score the illustrations using several criteria, including: the distance on paper between the two figures; the location of figures on the page; evidence of support or assistance between the figures; the size of the figures; the presence or absence of a parent in the picture; and the amount of detail put into each figure.

Greater distance between the figures was assumed to mean more conflict and avoidance, and differences in size indicated rivalry and a difference in power. Indications of support in the pictures was associated with greater closeness, empathy and teaching behaviors, and lower conflict.

Three evaluators, all expert art therapists with experience analyzing drawings, analyzed the pictures without any knowledge of whether the children belonged to the control group or the group with disabled siblings.

The authors believe questionnaires are less revealing than pictures, since children may want to respond to questions in a socially acceptable manner and may not be aware of some aspects of their inner worlds, which can come out through nonverbal communication.

“Artistic creation allows internal content to be expressed visually,” the authors wrote.

The children then answered a questionnaire aimed at evaluating their feelings of closeness, dominance, conflict and rivalry toward their siblings.

The mothers answered questions about the children’s relationships with their siblings and their social-emotional adjustment, with topics including sympathy, jealousy, anger, avoidance, teaching and companionship.

Based on the drawings and the questionnaires answered by the children and mothers, the researchers determined that children whose siblings have intellectual disabilities scored higher on empathy, teaching and closeness in their relationships, and lower on conflict and rivalry. The findings suggested higher levels of obligation to support their disabled siblings and dedication to the relationship, highlighting the increased caregiving demands on the family, the researchers said.

“In families of children with disabilities, there may be an increased emphasis on ‘familism,’ a family orientation characterized by interdependence and high priority on the needs of the whole family,” the authors wrote. “This, in turn, may influence [typically developed] siblings’ acceptance of their care responsibilities.”

“Overall, the research suggests children whose siblings have [intellectual disabilities] experience personal growth and gain emotional strength, and this is reflected in character traits such as perseverance, motivation, a sense of responsibility, maturity, and developed social skills,” they wrote.

The presence of a disabled child may also make the rest of the family more attentive to each others’ needs.

The drawings indicated increased parental involvement in families with a disabled child. Previous research showed greater caregiving needs for these parents, which may include more parental involvement in sibling relationships, and may be related to parents’ anticipating caregiving needs once they are no longer able to care for their disabled children.

The authors suggested that future studies include more use of drawings to glean knowledge on children’s inner worlds, rather than relying on verbal questioning.

There were no significant differences found between the two groups relating to the children’s individual social-emotional adjustment, indicating that having a disabled sibling did not have a negative impact.

Overall, the findings suggest that having a disabled child is beneficial to sibling relationships, strengthens family bonds and lessens hostility between siblings, and the “nurturing needs” of disabled children likely have a positive effect on their siblings.

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